Monthly Archives: November 2008

Thanksgiving Psychosis

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The Smoke and Mirrors of Profiling

phrenology_helmet1While this may be difficult to believe (grab your seats), all of those ridiculously popular crime shows that feature ‘criminal profiling’ may be even less realistic than we already know.  A new paper published in the journal Criminal Justice and Behavior challenges the very premise of criminal profiling, arguing that it lacks any theoretical grounding or strong empirical evidence.  From the abstract:

Potentially responsible for this illusory belief is the information that people acquire about Criminal Profiling, which is heavily influenced by anecdotes, repetition of the message that profiling works, the expert profiler label, and a disproportionate emphasis on correct predictions. Also potentially responsible are aspects of information processing such as reasoning errors, creating meaning out of ambiguous information, imitating good ideas, and inferring fact from fiction.

Prior to seeing this research, it hadn’t occurred to me that something so seemingly well-established–and purportedly evidence-based–as criminal profiling may be an unscientific, manufactured illusion, not unlike so many other branded beliefs that shower down around us daily.  

If correct, the implications of this study could call into question profiling in other areas as well.  We’re awash in profiling; it’s not uncommon for evidence to take a backseat to the allegedly scientific process of pre-identifying wrong doers (as in this example, among many).  Have we bought into an illusion posing as science?  It seems at least possible, albeit alarming, that profiling is the phrenology of our age. 

Here’s an interesting quick tour through the history of biological theories of crime (phrenology included).


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The Meme Machine Revisited: An Interview with Susan Blackmore

blackmore_tedIt has been nearly ten years since The Meme Machine  by Susan Blackmore was published. In this seminal book, Blackmore developed the idea–first proposed by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene–that culture, like biology, evolves through the processes of variation, selection, and replication.  From this beginning, Blackmore convincingly crafted a fully fledged theory of the ‘meme’.  Quoting from the book: “When you imitate someone else, something is passed on. This ‘something’ can then be passed on again, and again, and so take on a life of its own.” 

Since then, the theory of memetics has spawned a devoted legion of supporters, and an equally dogged army of critics.  What is it about such a simple word that can create this sort of friction?  While the word may be simple, its implications are not, particularly for those who cringe at the notion of evolutionary theory playing an explanatory role in culture. Dr. Blackmore was kind enough to spend some time with Neuronarrative discussing the theory of memetics and other topics.  


Since The Meme Machine was published roughly a decade ago, how far have we come in better understanding memes and their significance?

Hardly any at all! The whole idea of memes is widely misunderstood and widely rejected (though I don’t know in how many cases the latter is because of the former!). Many social scientists dislike memetics because they dislike any evolutionary approach to culture. On the other hand many biologists reject memetics because they want to restrict evolutionary explanations to biology – because they still believe that genes are the final arbiter. This means that the numbers of people willing and able to do research on memetics is very small.

Then there is the sheer difficulty of working out how to do research in memetics. It is a new way of seeingmeme_machine_cover the world rather than a set of specific hypotheses, so this makes it hard to test. There are, of course, predictions made from meme theory but on many occasions, when these have turned out to be correct, people have interpreted them in some other non-memetic way. It’s very frustrating!

I still believe that memetics provides the best way to understand human uniqueness, the way we evolved, and what is happening now as the third replicator (techno-memes, or temes) is beginning to take over.


Memetics has its share of detractors, some of whom have been rather vocal. What’s at the heart of the controversy?

There are many controversies. Among the valid ones is the question of whether memes are really a new replicator. I say they are but can appreciate arguments against. Another is the question of to what extent actions are really copied, as opposed to being reconstructed by the observer. I say there is a wide range and this does not invalidate memetics while others believe the uncertainty undermines the basic theory of memes.

Sadly, many of the objections to memetics are based on a complete misunderstanding of the whole idea. For example, some people persist in questioning whether memes exist. This shows a failure to understand the principle – memes are “that which is imitated” or “that which is copied”, so they must exist; words, songs, scientific theories and so on all exist don’t they? The relevant question here is not whether they exist but whether thinking of them as a new replicator helps us understand the world. I say it does. Others think that memes are nebulous abstract entities. Again they are not – they are information that is copied.

Others think they are neural patterns inside brains. On this issue there are legitimate discussions but as a general principle, if memes are that which is copied, then we don’t copy other people’s brain patterns.

But perhaps what is really at the heart of the controversy is that memetics is scary. It pushes evolutionary theory right into the heart of everything we think and do, and even into our understanding of the nature of self. Our self, I suggest, is a memplex created by and for the memes, rather than an actual existing entity that has consciousness and free will. Understandably people don’t like this idea. However, not liking an idea is not a good reason for believing it to be false.


The recent discoveries regarding mirror neurons would seem to have significant implications for memetics. Can you briefly describe how mirror neuron research has affected your work? 

Not at all. In The Meme Machine I predicted that something like mirror neurons would be found, and in fact they were being discovered at about that time. However, we now know that mirror neurons are found in many species that are not capable of imitation, and without imitation there are no memes. I think it will turn out that mirror neurons are necessary but by no means sufficient for imitation.


From reading your essays, I gather you have spent a fair amount of time thinking through the critical importance of science education.  What in your view are the major challenges facing science educators over the next several years?  

consciousnessSadly, I think people’s desire for there to be a creator and a meaning to life will always make it easier to teach false religious views than to teach evolution. So, after all these years, teaching evolution is still a challenge. In my view the way to do this is to get students to understand how natural selection works. You can pile on evidence forever and people will reject it (God put it there to fool us, scientists don’t know for sure, etc etc), but if they once understand the evolutionary algorithm then everything changes. When they understand that if you make lots of slightly different copies of something and then kill off most of the copies and repeat the process, then design for function MUST appear, then they can no longer use the argument that since the universe looks designed there must have been a designer.

This is the heart of true understanding – that design comes out of chaos without any designer or a plan. Of course they can still go on believing in God if they want to, but they can no longer believe that our existence required a creator God. This is a very big step into wanting to understand how the universe works and hence to enjoying learning science. But we should not underestimate how scary it is for people. If we want to teach science then we need to understand those fears and help people to enjoy finding out the truth rather than clinging to comforting dogma.


What are you working on lately?  Anything we can look forward to seeing, or reading, soon? 

My next book is called “Ten Zen Questions” and is due out in March. After battling with the great scientific mystery of consciousness for many years I realized that my own Zen practice might help to clear away some of the confusion. I have been practicing Zen for nearly 30 years now, and find its methods of meditation very helpful. For the book I tackled some wonderfully perplexing questions, including “Am I conscious now?”, “Who is asking the question?” and “When are you?” as well as some traditional Zen koans.

I conclude that the science of consciousness is so confused because people have not looked clearly enough into their own minds and so they are trying to explain an illusion. Consciousness is not the way most people assume it is. So we need to start again from a new beginning. I have also illustrated the book with simple brush and ink drawings, something I have never done before but thoroughly enjoyed.  (I am also setting up a website where people can share their own experiences with the ten questions and argue with my interpretations too!)

Link to Dr. Blackmore’s website

Link to Dr. Blackmore’s very entertaining and informative TED lecture

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The Psychology of Grifting

According to Paul Zak, neuroeconomist, the essential part of running a con is not to convince the pigeon to the-grifters-postertrust you, but rather to convince him that you trust him.  Zak discusses the underlying dynamics in this post on his Psychology Today blog, The Moral Molecule.  

The neurochemical system at play in the con is, as Zak explains, the The Human Oxytocin Mediated Attachment System (THOMAS).

THOMAS is a powerful brain circuit that releases the neurochemical oxytocin when we are trusted and induces a desire to reciprocate the trust we have been shown–even with strangers.

When THOMAS is engaged by someone who displays trust, we become more vulnerable to the devices of the unscrupulous.  The prefrontal cortex, home of our deliberative, and hence more vigilant faculties, takes a back seat while THOMAS flirts with disaster.  The flip side of this, of course, is that if THOMAS was never engaged, we’d never empathize with anyone or be able to build relationships.  Zak’s research suggests that about 2% of those we encounter in trust scenarios are, using the clinical term of art — bastards.

My laboratory studies of college students have shown that two percent of them are “unconditional nonreciprocators.” That’s a mouthful! This means that when they are trusted they don’t return money to person who trusted them (these experiments are described in my post on neuroeconomics). What do we really call these people in my lab? Bastards. Yup, not folks that you would want to have a cup of coffee with. These people are deceptive, don’t stay in relationships long, and enjoy taking advantage of others. Psychologically, they resemble sociopaths. Bastards are dangerous because they have learned how to simulate trustworthiness. My research has demonstrated that they have highly dysregulated THOMASes.

Here’s a video of Michael Shermer (Skeptic Magazine) learning the art of the “pigeon drop” con from a professional con artist.


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Seth Godin: Prophet of Remarkable Ideas

sethgodinSeth Godin is a writer of well-received business books; simultaneously, he’s a writer whose work has little to do with business.  For anyone else this would be an obvious contradiction, but for Godin it’s exactly on target.  I’ve read Godin’s books, and blog, for quite some time, and what’s clear to me is that while his primary publishing market is the world of commerce, his vision is by several orders of magnitude larger — it’s about changing the world, one idea at a time. 

What makes him different than most writers in his genre is his grasp of key psychological dynamics, such astribes_01 narrative immersion, situational influence, and confirmation bias. When you read his books (my favorite being All Marketers Are Liars) you are immediately aware that this is a writer with broad knowledge interests and a well-developed taste for interdisciplinary connection.  Refreshingly, this results in work that is certainly applicable to business in all its forms, but far more importantly to communication, learning, and living.

His latest book is called Tribes – about how people are connected by ideas and shared interests in the online era and the accompanying new role of leadership.  And with full permission of the author, here’s a link to a free companion e-book called Tribes Q&A 

Below is an entertaining talk Godin gave at TED. Enjoy.

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The Science of “What?!?”: Chatting with Author Mary Roach

mary-media-pic1You know from the first page of a Mary Roach book that you’re not in for a typical walk in the science park. Of course, when you picked up a book with the title Stiff, or Spook, or Bonk you were probably already hoping for something…different. And on that count, and many others, Roach’s books deliver the goods.

In the latest of her off-beat travels in the world of wierd science– Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and SexRoach is tourguide along the varied paths of sex science history – from the days of Masters and Johnson and Alfred Kinsey to the present day cadre of sex researchers and the fantastically odd challenges they face. The stories we’re told along the way are anything but mundane and each is delivered with refreshing wit (first hand testimony: laughing while reading isn’t optional).  Mary recently chatted with Neuronarrative about her work and writing Bonk.

You write unusually entertaining books about topics most writers wouldn’t think to take on so directly. What’s your thought process leading to a topic like the afterlife, or human cadavers, or the science of sex? 

It’s pretty simple.  Everything I do falls into the general category of peculiar science.  On top of that, it’s got to have some grabby historical elements and some potential for humor.  That eliminates just about everything right there.  This is always the hardest part for me.  The idea. 


Many science books are written as arguments to support a thesis, which can make reading them a dry, jargon-laden affair.  Your approach to science is quite obviously different – you’re engaged in a much more personal way.  How did you come to approach science, so often the stuff of axioms and arguments, with such personal engagement? 

This is what happens when people with BA degrees set out to write about science.  The secret to my books? Utter ignorance.  I’m not entirely joking.  The more you know about a topic, the harder it is to skate around as I do.  I think that to a certain extent, my humor depends on my being new to the topic.  A lot of what I write about is research that I stumble onto and that makes me go, “No way!  They did what??!?”   But if I had a background in that particular science, the research would make perfect sense, business as usual.  That wonderful surreal quality would disappear. 


So let’s talk about Bonk.  You say that the study of sex goes way, way back – even Leonardo bonk-cover-flashda Vinci dabbled in it a bit.  From Leo to Kinsey to now, how far have we come in understanding what makes our nether regions hum? 

The gynecologist Robert Latou Dickinson, one of the earliest sex researchers – and the man who got Kinsey interested in sex research – mentioned something fairly amazing.  He’d had, I don’t know, six or seven couples come to him complaining that they were having trouble conceiving.  (This was around the turn of the last century.)  Turned out that in all cases, the men had only penetrated the outer labia.  They thought that was intercourse.    It wasn’t just that no one studied sex; no one even talked about it.  So we’ve come a long way, certainly.  That’s not to say that the work is done, though. 


Speaking of Kinsey, you say in the book that he was described by some as a “masochist” and a “voyeur” with an unorthodox fondness for swizzle sticks and toothbrushes. Was Kinsey a case of genius paired with perversion, or was he just a guy especially involved with his subjects (be they wasps or…other things)?

I’ve read both biographies of Kinsey – okay, portions of them – and it’s really difficult to say.  One biographer suggested the former, one the latter.   Ultimately, Kinsey did us all such a tremendous service — by shattering the boundaries of what is “normal” sexually — that  I think of him as neither.  Not pervert, not eccentric, obsessive scientist, just flat-out hero.


What’s hands down the strangest sex experiment you know of (or were party to)?

180px-timemastersjohnsonThat’s a tough one. So many to choose from.  Masters and Johnson undertook a doozy that was designed to disprove the upsuck theory.   This was a theory that the contractions of female orgasm serve to suck the semen up through the cerivx, thus upping the odds of conception.  M&J didn’t buy it.  So they cooked up some ersatz semen (I put the recipe in Bonk), and added a radiopaque dye.  The stuff was loaded into a cervical cap, and then the women, while wearing the capful o’ semen, proceeded to gratify themselves in front of an x-ray machine.  The idea was that if the pretend semen was being sucked up, it would show up on the x-rays.   It didn’t. 


You’ve been called “a writer impervious to embarrassment,” and no doubt you’ve earned the title. While working on Bonk, was there anything that turned you a few shades of red (or even came close)? 

The obvious answer would be the 4-D coital ultrasound imaging that I volunteered Ed and myself for.   It actually wasn’t embarrassing; because it honestly didn’t seem like sex.  It felt like some strange, awkward medical procedure that you know will be over in 20 minutes, and you’re just going to get through it.  Mostly I felt guilty for dragging Ed into it.  He was the one with the burden of performance. I was taking notes through it all.  Also, I knew how much fun it was going to be to write up the scene, and that helped mitigate the embarrassment.


You say that you’re a writer “obsessed with my research.” So after obsessively taking on astiff-cover couple of the biggies–death and sex–what’s next?  How do you top two topics that preoccupy most of our minds most of the time?

I’m writing about space exploration — the fabulous, surreal insanity of trying to stay alive in an environment for which we’re utterly unequipped.   Lots of fun aerospace medicine history stuff, bizarre simulated missions here on earth…


Link to Mary Roach’s website

Credit for Mary Roach’s photo: David Paul Morris


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Wall-E or the Terminator?

asimo_conduct-772338Independently minded robots, Isaac Asimov told us, need rules.  With well-structured, law abiding robots, we get terrific garbage service, expertly made French toast and great lawn care. With recklessly structured, disobedient robots, we get “He’s been sent from the future to kill you – that’s WHAT he does! That’s ALL he does!”  The choice is clear, and fortunately someone has started the discussion to get us moving in a kinder, gentler robotic direction.

Authors Wendell Wallach, an ethicist at Yale University, and historian and philosopher of cognitive science Colin Allen, at Indiana University have provided us with Moral Machines: Teaching Robots Right from Wrong to help guide the way.  The New Scientist discusses their six strategies for reducing robotic danger here.  Here’s one of them:

Program robots with principles

Building robots motivated to create the “greatest good for the greatest number”, or to “treat 416fkpnotol__sl500_sl150_others as you would wish to be treated” would be safer than laying down simplistic rules.

Likelihood of success: Moderate. Recognising the limits of rules, some ethicists look for an over-riding principle that can be used to evaluate all courses of action.

But the history of ethics is a long debate over the value and limits of many proposed single principles. For example, it could seem logical to sacrifice the lives of one person to save the lives of five people. But a human doctor would not sacrifice a healthy person simply to supply organs to five people needing transplants. Would a robot?

Sometimes identifying the best option under a given rule can be extremely difficult. For example, determining which course of action leads to the greatest good would require a tremendous amount of knowledge, and an understanding of the effects of actions in the world. Making such calculations would require time and a great deal of computing power.

If you think this is far-fetched, please check out the giggling robot, the violin-playing robot and, of course, Asimo.  We’re not as far away from the future Wallach and Allen describe as it first may seem.  And it’s imperative we move fast before this happens…

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